Culture

Robert Geller's New York Minute

We talked with the talented menswear designer about becoming a New Yorker, working with Kanye West and the future of menswear.

by Wilbert L. Cooper
14 July 2015, 4:00am

All photos by Hayden Miller

When Robert Geller woke up on the morning of September 11, 2001, in his apartment in Lower Manhattan—nothing seemed out of ordinary except that he was running really fucking late. At the time, the German-born fashion designer was fresh out of school and had only recently settled in the United States. He had just landed a gig at Marc Jacobs and was supposed to be in the office around 8 AM, but it was already around 10.

His lateness was pretty understandable. The then-25-year-old had kicked it hard on the night of September 10th, drinking and celebrating with his coworkers after Marc Jacobs's runway show at Pier 54 for New York Fashion Week. Although that show featured some luxurious fabrics with an exuberant palette of colors like lilac and dandelion, its jubilant after party went on to be remembered in the history books as fashion's last hurrah before New York City entered a new, darker era.

"I looked at my watch, and I was like, I really have to hurry. So I just brushed my teeth and I threw on a shirt," the designer told me recently in his studio on Walker Street in Lower Manhattan.

Things didn't start to click until he got into the elevator. The lift had a window, but when he looked out of it, he couldn't see anything because everything was covered in plumes of dust. And there was a loud, intense clamor in the air—like dozens of people banging all at once. At first he chalked up the peculiarity of it all to a movie shoot, or maybe it was just him being hungover. But when he stepped outside, the realization became painfully clear.

"I go around the corner, and I just see the second tower with a huge hole in it and flames coming out and smoke everywhere," Geller said. "This lady just comes out and she grabs me by the shoulder and says, 'Get the fuck out of here! Get the fuck out here!' I take my first step, and then it starts coming down."

It's impossible to predict epochal events like 9/11. They come out of nowhere, blindsiding us while we're focused on chasing our own small goals or desires. In their wake, they alter the way we see everything that came before and the way we respond to everything afterwards. Today, you can see the impact of 9/11, whether it is explicit or allusive on a generation of creative New Yorkers, from musicians like TV on the Radio to authors like Jonathan Safran Foer.

For the designer, who was raised more than 3,500 miles away from the Ground Zero, 9/11 bore itself not so much in the execution of his work, but in his self-acceptance as a true-blue citizen of the Big Apple. "It was my introduction to the 2000s and to New York," he said. "At first I was like, I'm not sure if this is the place for me, if things like that can happen here. But I stayed, and in a way it gave me a right to be here. I had gone through that and it didn't scare me off."

It's been nearly 15 years since 9/11, when Geller was at the very dawn of his career as a New York designer. Today, the former Marc Jacobs intern from Germany is representing New York City as one of the designers selected to show at the city's inaugural New York Fashion Week: Men's. It's a fitting honor considering Robert's been outfitting fly New York dudes since the early 2000s. His first label was the cult-favorite Cloak, which he started with Alexandre Plokhov. Back then, it was all about the slim silhouette, militaristic detailing, and a dark color palette that paired perfectly with the raging tunes being made by bands like Liars and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. After leaving Cloak in 2004, he launched his eponymous label. Today, the Robert Geller brand is known for culling inspiration from a wide array of cool shit and filtering it through Geller's keen eye and sensibilities, to come up with looks that are tough yet avant-garde, romantic yet streetwise.

The Robert Geller brand has also helped tear down the walls between streetwear and luxury fashion by employing immaculate tailoring and construction. This look has come to dominate the way guys dress around New York City, where drop-crotch sweatpants that were hand-sewn in Japan and fancy running shoes that aren't actually meant for running have taken over where raw denim and the Americana-craze left off. But in fashion (an industry where designers have to work at least six months to two years ahead), and in New York City (a place where buildings transmogrify from factories to DIY venues to Whole Foods in the blink of an eye), it's not about where you've been, but where you're going.

Right now, as Geller approaches his first-ever New York Fashion Week: Men's show, he's aching to take the city's signature styles that he helped shape into a new direction. But you can't know where you're going unless you know where you've come from. So, when I linked up with him in his studio a few weeks ago, we took a trip down memory lane and discussed some of his earliest experiences in the city that never sleeps. I also picked his brain on what's next for him and New York City fashion as a whole, and what will be the defining phenomenons that shape the next generation of creative New Yorkers the way events like 9/11 impacted him and his peers.

VICE: You're showing at the inaugural New York Fashion Week: Men's. Tell me about the first time you knew you wanted to be a part of the fashion scene in New York city?
Robert Geller: This was before 9/11, when I was just interning for Marc Jacobs while I while I was still in school. I got to go to his runway show. It was at the 69th Regent Armory, which feels like an airplane hanger. First, the lights came on and then they started to play the "Human Fly." Then this girl started strutting on this massive runway. It was so fucking cool, tears started streaming down my face. I had worked really hard up until that point, so I was exhausted, but I was like, This is fucking it. Electricity was running through me. I knew in that moment that I was going to do my own thing. I was working hard before, but that just gave me the inspiration to really do it.

Now that you have your own thing and you're killing it, do you pay attention to what your peers in New York are doing? What direction are NYC's menswear designers going?
If you had asked me two years ago, I would have said it's bringing streetwear into high fashion. But now it's at the point where it makes me want to vomit. It's just overdone. Everyone's on the bandwagon. I mean, it's something that we've been doing for a long time—introducing sweatpants and knits and sweatshirts into high fashion with super-high quality. And there are people who are doing a good job with it, but there are loads of people who are not. And once you start seeing everybody doing it the wrong way, the message gets lost. Now it has to move on from that.

Where's it going next?
I still want to keep that comfort, but take it to a higher level with more tailoring, more structure, and really play with shapes and layering in new ways that are going to feel fresh. It'll be harder for people to try to follow that path... There comes a time where you have to prove that you're a designer who can adapt. I feel like the message that I've been trying to send has been caught up with and I need to move on.

Is that the burden of being an artist, having to constantly think of ways to push ideas to new levels?
It's never been a burden to me before because I always felt like I was moving at my own pace and going wherever I felt comfortable. Now I feel like there are people behind me and I need to go faster or take a different lane, because I don't like racing. Racing is not my thing. It's not the way to design and to develop. It's about naturally seeing the next step.

Where do inspirations for that next step come from?
It comes naturally. I read a book or I read an article, see an exhibition or something that I've liked for a long time that I really want to incorporate. I saw a Sarah Moon exhibition with my dad when I was 16 when we went to Paris, and I was totally in love with the beautiful, soft, romantic colors. Then I did a collection about a set of photographs she did on the beach. It was very moody and dark, really pretty, and beautiful. Sometimes it's just like a time and place. For instance, for spring 2011, I was inspired by the student revolutions of the late 1960s in Berlin.

You've been in the menswear game since the early 2000s. What's different about today?
Technology. The internet's killed off some brick-and-mortar stores. They were replaced by online stores. Now everything is so readily available, and customers are checking the prices. It creates a whole different dynamic that is kind of stressful. Stores need to get the clothes earlier so they can do a shoot and get it online. It's a whole different animal.

Has anything good come from it?
What I love about it is the forums. I've met so many people who wear Robert Geller who are on StyleForum or StyleZeitgeist or SuperFuture. Some of these people live in a small town and have a huge collection. This guy Eric—he probably has close to 250 Robert Geller pieces, and he's living in Ohio. He's the man. People probably think he's totally crazy, but online everybody knows him because he's got this amazing collection. I've met many of these forum users when they come to New York, and it's so cool. I love that it's spreading fashion. It opens minds to think about clothing in ways that were never possible before when you had to go to New York or LA to find other guys who were into fashion. These forums have planted a seed for menswear's future.

What do you think the future for menswear is going to look like?
I think fashion will separate itself from streetwear again. The good streetwear will stay as streetwear, and it will be made at a higher level than it was before... But I kind of loved what was happening. Fashion was becoming more democratic. Designers were more reachable, getting away from the Karl Lagerfeld fashion-god thing. That's much more my personality. I'm not sure I'm going to be part of it, but fashion will go back to being kind of elite. There was something really nice about something that was once so unattainable becoming something that's more friendly. But the reality is the unattainability is what makes it so precious and desirable to people.

You don't think you'll go that way?
I don't want to change. My whole thing has been that I just like to make clothes. It's not that special. No different from a painter or a construction worker—everyone's doing their thing.

You worked with Kanye on his line. He kind of embodies that breakdown, as an outsider who pushed his way into the industry. Do you think that kind of thing will get any easier, and is it OK for celebrities to ascend in fashion the way he did?
You have to divide it into different categories. There's a broad range of actual involvement by celebrities. Kanye was super involved. At times, I think he's into fashion more than music. He lives it. He's really behind what's happening with his brand. Within that spectrum of people who are really into it, I hope they continue to enter fashion. You shouldn't shun them just because they're celebrities and automatically assume that other people are designing and they're just putting their names on it.

If anyone can walk in and claim to be a designer, does that diminish your work in some way?
Well, as a designer, you feel like it needs to be an exclusive club that you need to protect. You think that if celebrities design a collection and everybody loves it, then it kind of cheapens what you do. But having seen it from the inside with Kanye and having seen his dedication, time, and effort, I really respect it.

A fashion week dedicated to men's is just one of the many signs that the men's fashion industry is really maturing in the US. Do you think the recent growth is something that will continue?
It's going to keep growing. If you look at the States, actually the world, the percentage of men that are interested in fashion is still very small. In most places, the J. Crews and Banana Republics are considered to be really fashionable. Of course, J. Crew makes some cool stuff, but I feel like it's an introduction. But through the internet and the interest that gets sparked by the H&Ms, fashion becomes more accessible and will grow among men.

That's interesting to hear from you since a lot of designers want to murder places like H&M for biting.
I feel like men have to start with something. You start with stuff that's close and attainable. And then you start to geek out and go deeper. You eventually graduate from the J. Crews and start looking at other brands like Tim Coppens or Patrik Ervell or Robert Geller or Phillip Lim or Wang... If you're really into it, that's where you end up. A lot of these guys that started reading GQ like ten years ago were probably into their whole Americana thing, getting some cool jeans, and some nice sneakers. Now they're going to start finding the brands that are doing some things that are more forward. Eventually, there'll be a groundswell where a larger percentage of the population in the men's world will be interested in real designer clothing.

What do you think Robert Geller label will look like in 2020 or 2025?
Hopefully, it will still be around. We're looking pretty good right now. I want to open a store. Just find a space where I can show people what the brand is about and expand it bit by bit. 2020 is five years away. That's not that long. I'm happy every year that I'm still around able to do what I do and make enough money off of it to support my family. I'm lucky. There are days that are crappy, but there's no job that doesn't have that. I want to be smart about the decisions I make and take the steps to keep it going and be proud of the work that comes out. That's all you can hope for. I'm not planning on becoming Michael Kors.

Have you changed at all as you've gone through the business and gotten older?
I've become more patient. I've learned not to expect quick changes because when when I was interning, I imagined if one day I opened up my own business and a magazine interviewed me, everyone would know about Robert Geller. And then I moved to New York and we did Cloak and within the first month I was in the New Yorker with a two-page story. I was like, What the fuck is going on here? It's crazy. That happened really quickly. But then the story came out and nobody said anything. When we won the GQ/CFDA award, a couple people were like, "Oh, great job." And then it was gone. I had a big story in Vogue in November. I was like, This is huge. Everybody reads Vogue... And maybe ten people said something about it.

What does that say to you?
That it's the little things that stack on top of each other that create the brand or create the image over time. It's not one thing. It's not winning an award that's suddenly going to make you a superstar. It's doing the right things and always continuing to build on top of it. That's the life of a career and a brand. It's long term. So, you have to think long term to protect its purity as much as you can.

What do think is shaping the New York designers the generation behind you? What perspective will the new guard bring to the table?
You know, cultural influences itself. A lot of that is not done consciously. We live in a certain space, and all of our surroundings mold us. It can come in the music we're listening to in the cab or the headlines when we turn on the news. It's the things that we worry about and the things that we're happy about. All of those things create what's happening in our mind. And it's not cyclical—it evolves slowly. The thing is, it's always hard to see it coming.

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This interview was edited and shortened.